by Richard Telford
Author’s Note: Though the product of many hours of research, writing, and revision, this chapter is nevertheless a draft; it will be subject to revision as the larger book in which it will appear takes shape. The chapter published below, “Throwing Bricks at the Temple,” follows a previous one published last month, “The Lonely Suffering of the Fallible Heart,” which can be viewed here. For greatest clarity, these chapters should be read in order. I welcome critical response, either in the comment section here or through direct e-mail. I am grateful to the Archives and Special Collections staff for providing me the opportunity to share this work, and to the Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees for awarding me a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 school year so that this work could be undertaken. Contextual information about the project and manuscript can be found here.
Chapter 10: Throwing Bricks at the Temple
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9: 11
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1897
Box 219 of the Teale Papers in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut houses only one object, a Nazi flag measuring roughly 88 inches by 46 inches. Its folds through 71 years of storage have become deeply ingrained, and the viewer is hesitant to pull and flatten it too much. The remaining half of its red field, torn along a diagonal axis, is still bold. It is a monument to a long-dead empire—a Reich, in its own anachronistic parlance—and it is a monument to the fifteen young men who signed their names in the four quadrants formed by the perpendicular bars of the angled cross that forms the center of the black swastika sewn to the circular white central field. Laying the flag down horizontally, as its signers clearly did 72 years ago, the viewer’s eyes are drawn first to bold green script: “Tiger Patrol 346th Infantry.” The four components of this inscription, staggered across the white field, step down the dark lines of the debased Hindu symbol, the second and the third occupying the horizontal pockets formed by the swastika’s angled tails. The capital letters T, P, and I are drawn in rough, oversized calligraphy, and the infantry numbers are drawn with like flourish. Pride, hope, just action for a just cause—all are expressed by the added insignia of this captured flag.
Just as the swastika divides the patrol and regiment designations, so too does it roughly divide the names of the signers. In the north quadrant of the white central field we see the signatures of Antonio J. Alvear, John A. Thompson, Eugene B. Pings, Frank Minnis; along the north-facing tail of the swastika are the signatures of George W. Muschinske, Roy Salame, and Edwin A. Stroh. In the west quadrant are the signatures of Lester L. Snider and Merle H. Patison; adjacent to them and to the right of the scripted “346th” are those of Mahlon Angstead, Billy Richardson, and Ernest Sachau. In the south quadrant, there is only one signature, that of John Steele. Finally, in the east quadrant, moving south to north, are the signatures of Irving J. Greenfield, Harold F. Gould, Jr., Bill Cummins, and, finally, David A. Teale. One can readily imagine Edwin and Nellie Teale intently searching for David’s signature—for any evidence of their only child, declared Missing in Action “somewhere in Germany” five weeks earlier—when the flag arrived to their Baldwin, Long Island home on May 9, 1945. Noting the flag’s arrival in his Guild diary for 1945, Edwin expressed the hope that he and Nellie might “get in touch with those near here” to learn more of the events leading up to David’s disappearance.
Five weeks earlier, on April 3, the day after receiving the first War Department telegram, Edwin wrote, “For so many days, since [leaving Popular Science Monthly in] 1941, I have been awakening to happy dreams in the work I love—Now we wake to the reality of a nightmare we have dreaded—we are hoping and believing that Davy is ‘safe’ as a prisoner.” Both Edwin and Nellie clung tenuously to such hope and belief as bulwarks against waves of grief that now defined “one of the great crises of our lives.” Three days later, on April 6, Edwin wrote, “Little by little, like an island eroding and disappearing in the flood, our standing-space has decreased—our hopes are now basing themselves on other hopes. Grief comes in waves.” Still, the Teales armored themselves with “thoughts of hope: that patrols are likely to be captured; that the wars may end soon and all prisoners will be released.” David’s work in the Tiger Patrol, conducted mostly near and behind enemy lines, justified this hope, but it likewise placed him in greater danger, and Edwin wrote on April 6 that such hopes were “only small, shining stars in the universal darkness.” Expressing the despair that was the constant counterpoint of such hopes, he wrote, “The sun is gone from the sky.”
Nearly thirty years later, in 1974, coming to terms with his newly received prostate cancer diagnosis, Edwin would reflect back on the agonizing uncertainty of the 132 days during which David was declared missing and his fate unknown to them: “Remembering the year David was missing in action and contemplating my current condition, it occurs to me that, in some ways, it is easier to face the inevitable than the uncertain.” In the early days of April 1945, however, uncertainty was exceedingly more palatable than relinquishing hope to the certainty of David’s death.
The Teales straddled a thin, ever-shifting line between despair and hope, and the fragmental evidence of David’s fate that came to them throughout that dark spring was alternately palliative and jarring. David’s final letter, written March 14, arrived on April 5, thirty-three days before the delivery of the Nazi flag. “How precious and how hard to read,” Edwin wrote of the March 14 letter in the Guild diary, adding, “The date on the outside was March 19th and the postboy thought that meant he was all right”—a thin ray of hope. Edwin found “relief from the pain in my heart reading Thoreau’s journals all afternoon,” a practice he would continue in the coming weeks. In Thoreau’s writings and those of W.H. Hudson, he found sanctuary. On April 5, Edwin noted, “’Newsday’ as well as ‘Review-Star’” had “long announcement[s]” on David’s MIA status. “What a joyous day it would be,” he added, “to see the write-ups changed for the better! I alternate between confidence of hope and the depth of black despair.” Still, he was determined to “hope to the end!”
On the following day, April 6, Edwin finished reading the first volume of Thoreau’s journals. He expressed gratitude for the “comfort” and the “sublime view” in Thoreau’s “honest pages in these dark hours.” He received several letters that day related to the newspaper announcements of David being declared missing. One came from natural history writer Ted S. Pettit, who offered to contact a New York Times columnist embedded “with [the] 3rd Army” and have him “check on Davy.” Edwin called him that evening to provide the necessary information to do so, but there is no evidence in Edwin’s papers that this inquiry yielded any meaningful information.
With any crushing loss, even an impending or potential one, it is in the small, daily reminders of the absent individual that our emotions become deeply mired, and this is evident in Edwin’s April 6 entry in Adventures in Making a Living:
I am overwhelmed for hours at a time. Grief comes from little things—the thought: “I must write that to David” and then the numbing realization that maybe, never again, will I write him anything; the sound of someone walking down the sidewalk after I have gone to bed and the flood of memories of how Davy returned thus from Scouts—and the knowledge that no feet turned in along our driveway. I feel bent and old inside.
Still, the Teales clung to the possibility of David’s capture and eventual release. These “shining stars in the universal darkness” were not yet extinguished, and Edwin struggled to fan their dim fires with hope that the larger cosmic forces that govern human experience —whatever these might be—might treat David benevolently:
And always we think: ‘How happy we would be if Davy were only safe!’ And this is the way it always is: How happy we would be if only—if only this or that were different. We never know we are happy when we are in that state—yet we have known and appreciated the great good fortune of recent years. I only hope David will not have to balance the books by his misfortune.
In Edwin’s mind, the link between his fate and David’s was direct and causal. The prosperity of the father, he reasoned, might come at a terrible cost to the son. Edwin was haunted by the nagging feeling that the next generation paid for the sins of the previous one, not just through direct cause and effect—one generation inheriting the political or economic disasters of its predecessor—but through some larger cosmic act of balancing. This belief, for Edwin, was crippling and potent. It gnawed relentlessly at his hopes for David’s safe return, and it tempered the joys that had flowed, and continued to flow, from his personal declaration of independence on October 15, 1941, having resigned his staff position at Popular Science Monthly.
Later, that fear would turn to anguish and guilt as this speculation, in Edwin’s view, was borne out by the events that followed. “One of the aspects that drives me nearest to despair,” Edwin wrote months later, “is the fact that my great good fortune has been balanced by David’s tragedy. What a sorry system where the debts of the fathers—as well as their sins—are visited unto the innocent generation!” The anguish and guilt that accompanied this belief persisted in Edwin’s thinking for the remainder of his life. Three decades later, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the summer of 1974, Edwin framed this crushing blow in the context of balancing David’s loss:
We talk on and on in wonderful companionship. We know I have had a long and a productive life; while our dear David was cut off in the war before life could really develop the promise of his youth. I was spared the terrors of war. Perhaps, if I can be as brave here on my own little battlefield of Trail Wood as David was on the battlefield where he died, I can, to some small effect, repay the debt.
In early April, 1945, however, hope wavered but was not extinguished, and Edwin scratched tenaciously at the infertile soil of rationalization to reason out some equation of fate or destiny that could light the way to David’s return. “If I could make any bargain with fate affecting myself,” he wrote, “I would do it—to save Davy I would trade any disaster I can imagine—never write a book again, learn I had cancer, see the house and all my 20,000 films go up in smoke.” He was, however, painfully aware of the futility of such bargaining: “But who can bargain with destiny? How helpless is every human at the great crossroads of fate!” While reasons remained to hope that David might yet be delivered safely home—the nature of reconnaissance work, the seeming inevitably of the war’s end—such reasons did little to mitigate his and Nellie’s grief for a loss that might or might not come.
By the second week of April, with the grueling Midwest lecture circuit behind him and the initial shock and fog of the War Department telegram relenting slightly, Edwin plunged himself fully into writing the second half of The Lost Woods. Though he had declared on April 3, “I can’t think, let alone write,” by April 9 he had gotten himself “by the scruff of the neck and pound[ed] out a 10-page rough draft of the chapter ‘Fledgling Ventures.’” On April 10, Edwin spent the afternoon in the sanctuary of the New York Public Library “working on jellyfish and clouds.” On April 12, he returned to the library once again, likely ensconced with stacks of materials in room 315, beneath James Wall Finn’s billowing clouds, spending “most of the day digging on redwoods, jellyfish, clouds and so forth.” Each of these subjects would be treated fully in separate chapters in The Lost Woods. That day, anxious for news of David, Edwin called Nellie twice, but no news had come. With plans to stay in the city for the evening meeting of the Brooklyn Entomological Society, he ate an early dinner with R.R. McElvare and Chris Olsen, both Society members. Olsen would later deliver the evening’s program on Homoptera, an insect suborder including aphids, scale insects, cicadas, and leafhoppers.
During this friendly dinner, the group’s waitress appeared disheveled and weeping at their table, disconsolate and nearly unable to speak. The evening’s radio broadcast had been interrupted to announce the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Though the effect of this news on Edwin—particularly as it related to his hopes and fears for David—is not clear in his several recountings of the night, he offered a thought-provoking commentary in Adventures in Making a Living. He focused his observant, reflective eye not so much on Roosevelt’s death itself but on the aftermath of the announcement and the class divisions it revealed:
In the restaurant, where well-to-do people were dining at $1.25 and $1.50 a meal, there was little display of concern—conversation went on, laughter continued. But at Union Square, where poor people were getting the subway, individuals seemed stunned. They were silent and stricken-eyed. This, more eloquently than words, revealed where the President stood and who were his friends, and for whom he had been working during his years in the White House.
By 1945, Edwin’s writing and photography had become extremely lucrative; through his own tenacity, self-discipline, and talents, he had effectively joined the moneyed class. On May 4, 1945, for example, he noted in the Guild diary that his year-to-date income since January 1 had been $3,732.19. To this figure, he added the following bracketed postscript: “In four months, income as much as I used to get for a whole year’s slavery at that Concentration Camp at P.S.M.” At this time, Edwin received income of some form almost daily: lucrative feature publications of future book chapters in Coronet, Natural History, Audubon, American Girl, and other journals; numerous photo licensing fees, from small brochures to major publications like Life; and a steady flow of royalty checks from Dodd, Mead, including the royalties for the Armed Services Edition of Dune Boy, of which, by the war’s end, the War Department had published and distributed 106,147 copies. Edwin, through his own tenacity and with little help from others, had achieved financial security. And, he had likewise earned national fame. He had, for example, recently sat on the platform of dignitaries before 20,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden during a special radio broadcast honoring Mary Margaret McBride, the “First Lady” of twentieth-century radio. Seated beside another First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Edwin had even made a brief appearance “before the microphone—my first 20,000 person audience!” Still, it was with the working class that he identified most readily and sympathetically. This divide—between the class he had entered and the class to which he would always truly belong—was likewise reflected in his relationship at this time with amateur ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson, Vice President for Public Relations at J.P. Morgan. Wasson had just written a treatise in 1943 defending John Pierpont Morgan, posthumously, for his role in the Hall Carbine Affair during the American Civil War. “The case against Morgan,” Wasson had argued, “was built up by these modern writers through the suppression of true evidence, the suggestion of false evidence, garbled evidence, and plain misquotation from documents.” These were not the kind of matters, however, on which Edwin and Gordon Wasson spoke during regular lunches in the J.P. Morgan Dining Room.
Wasson had written to Edwin after he and his wife had purchased a copy of Grassroot Jungles for their two adopted children. They were first drawn to the book by Edwin’s macro photography, which was ground-breaking for the time. “Mr. Teale is well known for his insect photography,” reviewer Anita Moffett had written in The New York Times Book Review, “and these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblin-like grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.” Though initially impressed by the book’s pictures, it was Edwin’s writing that prompted Gordon Wasson to reach out to him. “It was only after he began to read the book,” Edwin recorded in June of 1944, “that he became interested in the writing—and the writer. This is the finest of ways to make a friend through a book—the decision is uninfluenced and genuine.” Wasson viewed Edwin as “an American Hudson,” and, while this praise flattered Edwin, it likewise left him overwhelmed. In response to Wasson’s praise, Edwin wrote, “I know how fettered I am; how weak my wings. And after all, I must work out my own salvation. I can’t be a little W.H. Hudson or a little Thoreau or a little Shakespeare—I have to be what I am.”
Still, Wasson’s praise was heartfelt and unvarnished, and the genuine affinity of the two for one another contrasted sharply with the ostentatiousness of the J.P. Morgan dining room where they regularly met. In March of 1944, almost precisely one year before David’s death on the Moselle River, Edwin noted, “Last week, I had lunch with Gordon Wasson at the JP Morgan dining room. In such an atmosphere, our thoughts remained sincere, out-of-doors and normal.” He and Wasson understood what mattered: “We keep our eyes on the essential truth, the fact that W.H. Hudson in poverty was a greater man and lived a greater life than millionaires with only money as their accumulated residue from the years of their lives.” Edwin belonged on the mossy log, not the red velvet chair. He belonged with the subway riders at Union Square. He belonged with the barefoot farm boy who, as Robert Frost had written in 1916 during Edwin’s youth, “was too far out of town to learn baseball,/whose only play was what he found himself,/summer or winter, and could play alone.” Edwin also had been too far out of town, in the best sense, finding his play in the variegated dune landscape, and now he had entered the world of fame and fortune to which he had aspired since youth—and he had entered as he wished to, as a naturalist and a writer—but in many ways he did not fully belong to that world. Nor did he want to, fully. Stepping down from the microphone in Madison Square Garden, Edwin had felt “relief to escape afterwards.” Though he ran the author’s circuit in New York City and across the country—finding genuine friendship in the like minds of Gordon Wasson, Edward H. Dodd, Jr., and even American humorist Will Cuppy, with whom Edwin frequently dined—he did not lose sight of what mattered and what did not.
* * * * * *
By mid-April of 1945, Edwin began to push back against the initial creative paralysis that came with the shock of David being declared missing. Despite some struggle, he got back onto the rigorous production schedule necessary to complete the full draft of The Lost Woods by the promised date of June 1—a daunting timeline even without his almost-unbearable grief for David. On April 18, Edwin “worked effectively on the ‘World of the Wild Bee’ chapter most of the day.” In a long, somber entry in Adventures in Making a Living, he noted that “the New York papers today list David as missing in the official list released by the War Department. For us, life goes on; but hope stands still.” This juxtaposition of daily productive toil and daily quiet torment largely defined this period for Edwin. He worked relentlessly to complete The Lost Woods even as “the lightning” of David’s being declared missing had “split open [their] sky.” Remarkably, the final book does not, in an overbearing way, convey Edwin’s anguish. The anecdote of the young man of draft age at the filling station near the Merrimack in 1939, despite Edwin’s fears in that moment for David’s future, was rendered with restraint and with no reference to David. In “The Calm of the Stars,” a chapter begun while David was missing and revised when Edwin was certain that David would not return, Edwin presented a living, youthful David, offering the reader no window into the Teales’ staggering loss. In the book’s final chapter, in which Edwin would argue that nature could offer a balm for the suffering and grief of war, David would get no mention. For Edwin, The Lost Woods offered an escape from his grief for David, not a place to wallow in it.
After April 18, Edwin would not write again in Adventures in Making a Living until August 18, exactly fourth months later. It was on this latter date that the Teales concluded that David must be dead, though the War department would not confirm this until February of 1946, eleven months after his disappearance on the Moselle River. On April 18, Edwin wrote, “I can write but little in this book of my heart,” and the reader of Edwin’s private papers is reminded of the contrasting approach of the two concurrent records of his life at this time: the Guild diary and Adventures in Making a Living. While the former provided a place to record the details of daily life, forming a succinct record for future reference—it is likely he already envisioned penning an autobiography in later years—the latter provided a place for the exploration of ideas, for deep reflection, for the celebration of triumphs and the reconciliation to failures and losses. The crafting of this book of the heart demanded more than Edwin could give. He could not leave his emotional turmoil on the page. This links, as well, to Edwin’s act of plunging himself fully back into the rigorous production schedule for The Lost Woods—a schedule much like the ones to which he had adhered to complete Near Horizons in 1942 and Dune Boy in 1943. In the context of David’s unknown fate, it was an act of sheer mental force and unflinching self-discipline, but it was likewise an act that reassured Edwin by its familiarity. Despite their challenges, these labors offered solace and distraction. Edwin’s determined efforts to complete The Lost Woods on schedule reflected, in great part, an act of emotional survival.
Edward H. Dodd Jr. had written to Edwin on April 8, urging him, in light of the April 2 War Department telegram, “to forget all about schedules and to get the book in when [you] can.” Thus, the pressure to keep the book on track now came mostly from within. While Edwin had established himself as a writer who kept deadlines sacrosanct, the adherence to a highly developed work ethic was now a lesser factor in his drive to keep The Lost Woods on schedule. The book had no fixed deadlines now. Later, in August of 1945, when he had resumed writing in Adventures in Making a Living, he reflected back on his toils during the period of uncertainty over David:
I was pounding away at the book, laboring under strain and weariness and heaviness of heart. But it kept me with, of necessity, concentrated toil that made me only partly aware of the magnitude of the tragedy. I almost worked to keep from thinking.
Edwin’s reflection back on these days does not illuminate a previously unknown fact for the reader of his private papers; instead, it confirms what is readily evident as Edwin plods page by page, grimly determined, through the last book that would be associated with a living David. Such toil provided distraction and purpose on days when Edwin felt “as though the Spartan fox were gnawing on my vitals,” on days when “involuntary sighs tear my chest,” on days when his mind was perpetually “in a whirl.”
On April 20, Edwin rode David’s bicycle—just returned by the repair shop in Rockville Center, as Edwin had promised David in his final April 1 letter—to the Insect Garden at 6:30 in the morning. Upon returning home, he slogged through an unnamed chapter, “writing and rewriting three pages.” There was “not too much to show for the day—only 400 words—but doing work carefully.” He hoped he might make “better progress tomorrow as a result of today’s groundwork.” This hoped-for progress was made on the following day. On April 21, after another 6:30 a.m. trip to the Insect Garden, Edwin was at his desk by 8:00. He sorted pictures for The Lost Woods “then [took] up work on the chapter.” He noted, “Celebrate progress in the afternoon—to garden.” That celebration, a brief reprieve from pounding at the typewriter, marked progress on two scales, that of a day and a decade respectively. April 21 was for Edwin an anniversary to celebrate. Despite his leaden heart, he noted this anniversary:
Ten years ago today, on April 21, 1936, I spaded up the Insect Garden, “breaking ground” for this orchard hillside so closely linked to the good fortune of the decade that has passed since that day.
The celebration of the Insect Garden, which had made possible the writing and photography of Grassroot Jungles and Near Horizons, must have been tempered greatly by David’s absence—the contrasting feelings perhaps highlighted by the arrival that day of “a nice letter about David” from ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History—but grief and anxiety for David could not fully smote Edwin’s profound gratitude for the ways in which his life had changed during the preceding decade, despite his fear that David’s fate might be the cosmic counterbalance to these changes.
On April 27, a Friday, Edwin spent the morning selecting 100 photographs he would take to Dodd, Mead the following Tuesday. He also got a “grand action picture of [a] bug spearing and consuming [a] tent caterpillar—take five with photoflashes. Perfect negatives—Elated.” They would “fit in with ‘Travels on a Leaf,’” he noted, the tenth chapter of The Lost Woods. Two of these images of Podisus, the spined soldier bug, appeared in the book. On the following day, April 28, he worked from 8:30 a.m. onward on “Men in Nature,” the nineteenth chapter of the final book, reaching the bottom of page four by 8:00 that evening. He had fallen short of what he hoped to finish, which left him discouraged. In a postscript in the Guild diary, he added, “No word from Davy.” The preposition choice here reflects the Teales’ continuing, albeit diminished, hope that they would hear from David, rather than of or about him.
In contrast to the slow working pace of April 28, which had sent him “weary to bed” by 8 p.m., the following day, April 29, was a productive one during which he completed the last 25 enlargements needed to round out the 100 photographs he had promised to deliver to Dodd, Mead on Tuesday. The publisher’s engravers could then begin their work, a significant step in the hasty march toward the book’s final production. He had completed the work ahead of schedule and could use the following day to make a second attempt at completing “Men in Nature,” which included a section featuring a 37-year-old naturalist named Roger Tory Peterson who was enjoying a meteoric rise in the natural history world, the genesis of which had been the publication of his 1934 Guide to the Birds. On April 30, following a walk to the Insect Garden, Edwin spent the day “working at top speed all day with peace rumors on the radio at hourly intervals,” completing a “16-page ‘almost final’ draft” of “Men of Nature” by 9:15 that evening. This left Edwin feeling “woozy,” and it began for him a period during which the demands of The Lost Woods—compounded by the terrible burden of waiting for news of David’s fate—took a physical toll: regular nosebleeds, oppressive headaches, and crippling fatigue that often sent him back to bed for naps in the early afternoon.
Edwin arose before 5 a.m. the next morning, the first of May, unable to sleep, which he attributed to being “wound up from overwork.” He took an early train into New York City, stopping first at the New York Public library for research, then heading to Dodd, Mead. There, he and Edward H. Dodd, Jr. completed layouts for “forty-five of the ninety-six pages of pictures. Grand progress.” While at Dodd, Mead, he learned that The Golden Throng and Grassroot Jungles were currently out of print, likely due in part to war-time material shortages, but a new printing of 2500 copies of the latter title was scheduled for June, which would bring the total printed “to about 11,500.” After leaving Dodd, Mead, he ate dinner at an Automat on 42nd street, where he “read of Hitler’s reported death.” Edwin had suffered a splitting headache throughout the day, and, though he had planned to stay in the city long enough to attend an evening meeting of the New York Entomological Society, he headed home instead and was in bed by 9:30.
The following morning, he felt little better, having spent much of the night “unable to sleep.” He skipped writing for the day, instead organizing negatives and “getting [the] final selection worked out” for the book. Despite the lack of writing completed, he declared it “a good day’s work.” There was still “No word from Davy yet.” May 3 was spent in similar fashion, putting his book production house in order. He spent the morning completing “a final sorting of notes for the various chapter-drawers of the steel file.” Edwin used this steel file, with 27 shallow, letter-sized drawers in three columns, to organize his books, chapter by chapter. Completed chapters were removed for shipment, their draft materials filed elsewhere. Thus, the emptying of a drawer was a tangible symbol of forward progress. On May 3, Edwin noted, “Only 12 drawers left now,” adding confidently, “Am all set for the final dash!” That afternoon, Dodd, Mead sent the first eight engravings, and his response was summarized with one word: “Deeelighted!” That evening, he went with Nellie to see “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Elia Kazan’s directorial debut, at the Grove Theater in Baldwin. Joy had, for a time, won the day.
If May 2 and 3 had been for Edwin a modest high to ride, Saturday, May 5 was a low to be endured. He wrote, “Lose myself in ‘The Calm of the Stars’ chapter.” This later chapter of the book was for Edwin a high hurdle. In it, he included a brief narrative of a magical night spent canoeing with David in Middle Saranac Lake, New York, in search of Bartlett’s Carry, a quarter-mile portage trail to Upper Saranac Lake. He later wrote in the finished chapter:
We seemed suspended among the stars, floating amid the constellations of the firmament…Ahead of us, the Milky Way soared upward from behind the black bulk of an island like a great white plume and in the water this arching river of stars ran the whole length of the lake…Looking up or looking down, we could see around us stars and planets, galaxies and luminous celestial dust, cosmic worlds without end. Weary and hungry though we were, we floated for more than an hour thus before we turned again toward our camp.
How hard it must have been for Edwin to consider that this chapter—the only one in which David appears in The Lost Woods—might later be a memorial to him, that this might be the last of Edwin’s books to which David had had a living connection. For Edwin, losing himself in the chapter was losing himself in the flood of memory—the recollection of simpler, happier times that, in the context of a terrifyingly uncertain present and future, might shortly be relegated to memory alone, neither to be relived nor built upon.
Edwin had reached only the bottom of page three by 4:00 in the afternoon, though he felt he was “making real advancement.” Having gotten a nosebleed from “working so intensely,” he quit writing for the day. He rode David’s bicycle to the Insect Garden, perhaps seeking solace from the emotional rigors of the morning. Returning home an hour later, however, he received instead another “bombshell”:
A package we sent David comes back with the notation “Deceased. Lt. Hawkins C.O.” The “Deceased” was crossed out in pencil and “Missing C.R.” written above. Call Red Cross in Mineola. Learn “CR” stands for “Casualty Report” and the change was probably made by a postal censor in Europe. But does the C.O. know more than has got on the records?
The blow devastated Edwin. “I feel,” he wrote later that evening, “like a shell had carried away all my body between my lungs and my legs—I can breathe and walk but I feel ‘gone’ inside. How I pray David is safe. But how black is the night of my despair.” He slept little that night, “toss[ing] in agony most of the night,” but he held fast to his grim determination to “hold on!” There was nothing else he could do. He would not return to his work on “The Calm of the Stars” for months—and then only when he knew David was dead. But on May 6, the chapter’s association with the youthful David—paddling through the brilliant night, the ugliness and loss of the war still remote—made continued work on the chapter unbearable. “I put it off to the end,” he would write three months later, “as it was in the middle of this chapter, earlier, that I had stopped to answer the postman’s knock and found the package returned ‘deceased’—I dreaded to go on.”
* * * * * *
On May 7, Edwin awoke early and rode David’s bicycle to the insect garden. Later, while reading a letter from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the radio announced that V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, would officially be celebrated the following day as a result of German General Alfred Jodl’s signature of unconditional surrender papers in Rheims, France. Edwin marked the date in the Guild diary: “V-E DAY (MINUS ONE!).” Though the “minus one” was a countdown to the national celebration of the following day, it also evoked David’s absence. It seems impossible that Edwin, too, would have overlooked this duality. Here was a desperately sought victory, yet for one—the one who mattered most to the Teales—that victory might have come too late. Edwin and Nellie could only celebrate the war’s end “minus one,” and the ominous fear that life might continue for them forever “minus one” assaulted their hearts. “All day,” Edwin noted, “the radio blares and booms and hums telling good news so long, so devoutly, wished for by all men of good will the world around.” Overwhelmed, however, by “the contrast of the joy of the day and the fears of our hearts,” he returned “To the garden in sober mood,” declaring, “How precious is that hillside scene!” Just as it had been during his bitterest days at Popular Science Monthly, the Insect Garden was yet again a refuge. While the despair of these days could not be fully allayed by these trips, it could be mitigated by Edwin’s loss of himself in the uncountable and constant cycles of life amidst the old orchard trees. The Lincoln apple tree, which had borne silent witness to the griefs of the American Civil War and many wars to follow, did so once more. For someone like Edwin, whose life was so consciously connected to the cycles of nature, such observations offered solace and order.
Later that morning, Edwin returned to bed, “reading literary classics in The Bibelot,” literary pirate Thomas Mosher’s famous reprint series of classic and contemporary texts bound in arts and crafts style bindings. Like the Insect Garden and Thoreau’s journals, such classic works, with enduring characters in whom the reader might see oneself, comforted Edwin. In literature spanning ages, he could find a communion of loss and suffering. Three weeks earlier, he had written, “But when my mind focuses on our Davy…how overcome by grief the moments are. In every age, men and women have known such moments. We get through them as best we can.” The characters of Balzac and Wilde and Eliot and others suffered such moments; so, too, must the Teales. Putting down The Bibelot, he rose from bed for the second time that day and got to work on “The Striking Serpent,” the fourth chapter in The Lost Woods. By 7:30 that evening, he had written “5 ½ good pages” and felt “squared away for the home stretch tomorrow.” Believing the war’s end might speed the final verdict on David, and fearing the crippling effect of tragic news, he planned “to start early so can complete chapter before mail time—in case there is bad news I will have that much done and that will help.”
Edwin’s self-disciplined approach to meeting deadlines is reflected above, and it is not perhaps terribly surprising, but it is important to remember that Edward H. Dodd, Jr. had, on April 8, withdrawn all fixed deadlines for the book. Consciously or unconsciously, the forces driving the completion of The Lost Woods had materially changed. The tenacious and sorely taxing process of hammering out page after page, even as his world collapsed, had become a weapon with which Edwin could fight despair. The prize of his departure from Popular Science Monthly had been, and still was, the freedom to fail or succeed on his own merits and largely on his own terms. He was no longer anchored down by the incompetence and the pettiness of others. That freedom—the control of his destiny—was more important now than it had ever been. “Always it is driven home upon us,” he had written in December of 1944, with David now terrorized by German 88 barrages, “How helpless we are!” Edwin could have no influence over what had been or what would be David’s fate. He could not speed the War Department’s delivery of news of David. He could not will the steps of someone walking down the street in the late evening to turn in to the driveway, to be David returning not from a Boy Scouts meeting but from “somewhere in Germany.” He could control none of these things, but he could control his adherence to deadlines; he could control the collection of research and the production of chapters and images. Months later, when he was finally certain of David’s fate, Edwin would write, “I have willed to do certain things and as long as I live I will hold true to that line. That I can control; and that I will control. For my great and glorious freedom—in the midst of this great despair—I give thanks.”
* * * * * *
The Nazi flag sent by David arrived at the Teales’ Baldwin home the day after VE-Day, on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 9, 1945. It was the kind of timing on which Edwin would certainly have commented, attributing it to fate or destiny, if he were writing the biography of another. However, its arrival prompted only two sentences in the Guild diary: “In afternoon, the Nazi flag David sent arrives. It has the names and addresses of the Tiger Patrol members on it—we can get in touch with those near here.” While the arrival of this flag offered a significant opportunity to gather information on what had happened to David, it must have seemed at best a double-edged sword. Such information could buttress their hopes. It could likewise, however, abruptly end those hopes, and this may have seemed to Edwin and Nellie the more likely result, given the “Deceased” markings on recently returned letters and packages sent to David, albeit changed to “Missing.” The fear of this latter outcome might explain Edwin’s tepid response to the flag’s arrival.
Edwin traveled into New York City on the following day and had a “wonderful day.” He went to Dodd, Mead to turn in captions and front matter for the dummy—a representative mock-up—of The Lost Woods. While there, he examined the proofs of the book’s dustjacket, which he declared to be “Superlative!!” He later visited an uptown tenement house at 82 E. 107th street and knocked on the door of the family of Private First Class Antonio J. Alvear, whose signature and full address, written with especially ornate cursive, appear at the topmost point of the white central field of the Nazi flag sent home by David. While Edwin did not identify the family member or members to whom he spoke, he noted that Alvear, too, had been declared missing. “If 3 missing,” he wrote, “maybe evidence patrol was captured. Take heart.” It is not clear if Alvear was the third Tiger Patrol member that Edwin had determined was declared missing or, instead, if Edwin meant that one more Tiger Patrol member declared missing would help solidify his speculative hope that David was now a German prisoner rather than a casualty of the battlefield. In either case, the visit to the Alvears’ home provided a small measure of hope. Other contacts made through the signed Nazi flag would, in the short term, provide further hope of this kind.
Edwin spent the following day, May 11, polishing “ferrotype plates in preparation for the final enlargements.” Edwin’s use of ferrotypes, or tin-types, which were largely out of use by 1945, reflects wartime shortages of photographic paper. By the end of the following day, Edwin had enlarged 60 more negatives: “Great progress toward finishing up the art” of the book. Despite a productive day that left him feeling good, his thoughts inevitably returned to David: “I look over the blank pages ahead…and wonder under which date I will record the word from David and what that word will be. How devoutly I pray the word will be good.” The next day, Sunday, May 13, Edwin taught the Victors Sunday School class, bringing with him the signed Nazi flag. It prompted a “good class discussion.” He spent the afternoon enlarging an additional 28 negatives, “good additions for the book,” and went to bed after a short walk with Nellie. “Have 45 negatives more to enlarge,” he noted. With another 60 negatives enlarged the following day, the artwork was “done for the whole book now!” Here was a thing he could control.
One week later, Edwin began writing “The Timeless Trees,” a chapter dedicated to the Great Sequoias of the west. Nine chapters remained to bring The Lost Woods to a full draft. Reaching the fourth page of the chapter, he shifted to completing enlargements of “all the odds and ends” for the book, “using up every last sheet of paper” and switching to “ferrotype tins by 7 p.m.” That evening, the Teales received a telephone call from the mother of 21-year-old Edwin A. Stroh, another of the Nazi flag’s signers who had likewise been declared missing on March 16. Mrs. Stroh had received a letter from the father of Tiger Patrol member Billy Richardson, also a signer of the flag. Like the Teales, the Strohs too were trying to piece together the details of their son’s fate and had reached out to the Richardsons, who lived in Ewing, Indiana. Billy’s father had written back to her with sobering news: Billy had been killed in action on April 12, 1945 in Germany, nearly one month after David, Antonio Alvear, and Edwin Stroh were declared missing. Billy Richardson, Edwin decided, “must not have been with David’s patrol on March 16th,” and this news, as disturbing as it was, kept alive the Teales’ thin hopes that David might not have suffered the Richardson boy’s fate.
Two days later, on May 23, Nellie received another call from Mrs. Stroh, “giving information on what happened to the Tiger Patrol and providing more grounds for hope that Davy was taken prisoner.” The Teales’ optimism, however, was short-lived, as a call from Mr. Stroh on the following day brought the news that “Alvear was reported killed in action.” As chilling as this news was for the Teales, it must have been even more so for the Strohs. Alvear, Edwin noted, “was supposed to be in the same boat with Liet. Pings and Edwin Stroh. The current was swift. Possibility drowned now looms large.” The implications for David’s fate were potent and devastating. “As relieved as I felt last night,” Edwin wrote after receiving the call from Mr. Stroh, “I now feel plunged in despair.”
Dark days followed the news of Antonio Alvear’s change of status. Edwin described May 25, as “a day almost lost.” He “fiddle[d]…most of the day” with material for Reader’s Digest, and could not will himself to do productive work. “Feeling bad about Davy most of the day,” he noted, “The strain seems piling up on me.” The following day, a Saturday, members of the New York Entomological Society congregated for a picnic at the home of club member Chris Olsen in West Nyack, New York. For Edwin, it was a somber day: “Rain all day long—few out—lowering clouds and my mood of depression over David as somber as the sky.” Though the group managed to “see 17-year cicadas emerging,” this sighting, normally a highlight for such an outing, likely added for Edwin another shadowed layer of grief. For Edwin, the sighting must have called up memories of William T. Davis and their final trip to see the cicadas emerge one year earlier on June 16, 1944. Mr. Davis was “feeble” then, his health failing rapidly. Edwin had dedicated a full chapter to Davis in Near Horizons in 1942, documenting their days spent in far-ranging discussions beneath the Lincoln apple tree and “investigating crannies of the Insect Garden.” Davis’s subsequent decline, and his death on January 22, 1945, had left Edwin “profoundly moved and depressed.” More than two decades later, when Edwin constructed his writing cabin at Trail Wood, he would place by the door William T. Davis’s collecting net, “well polished by use,” which later “doubled as a cane on his field trips”—a reminder of the latter’s mentorship and, more broadly, of the passage of time.
* * * * * *
As May came to a close and June unfolded, Edwin buried himself more deeply in his work on The Lost Woods and in keeping up with the voluminous correspondence he maintained. At some point, though it is not recorded in the Guild diary, the June 1 deadline for the completed draft of The Lost Woods had been changed to July 1. For the coming days, Edwin set for himself an “impossible schedule.” It called “for seven chapters and one book review” to be completed. Still, Edwin dug in with grim determination under grim circumstances. He spent the first day of June working on “Life’s Dividing Line,” later the thirteenth chapter in The Lost Woods. He then copied “all Wasson corrections on white copy of chapters,” revealing that Gordon Wasson had become one of several unofficial editors for the book, a group which included Clara Teale, Nellie, and a number of chapter-specific experts, such as herpetologist Raymond L. Ditmars of the Bronx Zoo—a number of whom he acknowledged in the book. In a symbolic act, Edwin “put brown tape on [a] keeboard box,” preparing the “final manuscript repository.” Such small acts reassured Edwin that the book of his mind was becoming a book in tangible form, despite the seemingly impossible itinerary for the days ahead. That evening, Edwin Stroh’s father called to notify Edwin that Lieutenant Eugene B. Pings had been officially declared missing. On this fact, Edwin offered no further comment. After the confirmation of Antonio Alvear’s death, such information offered pointedly little speculative value and little illusion of comfort.
Throughout the winter and spring, Edwin and Nellie had been reading chapters in the New Testament each night, and they continued to do so now as summer edged closer. David had sent two copies of the New Testament —both preserved in the Dodd Center—from Fort Jackson in 1944. That summer, he had been collecting New Testament copies to distribute to fellow infantrymen. Without explanation, however, he noted in a letter sent from Fort Jackson that he had decided against doing so and sent his remaining two copies home. David, in his stateside correspondence to his mother, regularly quoted or referenced New Testament scripture, often elaborating on his interpretation of a given passage or story, and Nellie did likewise in reply. On November 2, 1944, David wrote her from England, “I am glad that you are reading the New Testament. I think that your scriptures are very nice.” Such references were generally not a part of the letters he sent his father, and it is clear that David understood his father’s veiled ambivalence toward organized religion and toward the existence of a benevolent God. Though this ambivalence might have been masked or even seemingly contradicted by Edwin’s decade-long leadership of the Victors Sunday School class, it was this role that perhaps had helped the deeply sensitive and highly intelligent David to see a truth of which he and his father could not openly speak. Edwin wrote about his work with the Victors in June of 1944, while David was stationed at Fort Jackson:
For eleven years, every Sunday I have been in Baldwin I have talked for nearly half an hour to these boys. I have tried to be honest, to tell the truth, to leave unsaid what I don’t believe or am not sure about. Some things I have said may stick in someone’s mind; may be helpful in a time of need. Letters come in from all parts of the world from ex-members of the class. It has often seemed that this extra load was just about too much. But I am glad I have kept on.
While Edwin could check his ambivalence in the context of the greater good he accomplished with the boys of the Victors class, that same ambivalence turned to rage when he witnessed the tragic inequities of the human condition. Several months earlier, he had learned of the untimely death by malarial infection of his close friend Henry Cushier Raven, an explorer and specimen collector for the American Museum of Natural History. Raven was only 55, and his death provoked not just ambivalence in Edwin but “bitterness and wrath” toward the notion of a benevolent God:
[The] worthy man [is] taken while the bullys [sic], the braggarts the mean and the contemptible remain.…On earth, by every test, chance decides according to her whims. Innate justice, inherent in man’s sense of fair play, has invented a heaven to try to balance the debts and to make the senseless sensible.
It was precisely this kind of language with which Edwin would later fill page upon page in Adventures in Living after learning of David’s fate in Germany. Still, despite his deep spiritual conflicts, Edwin read nightly with Nellie in David’s New Testament, perhaps to support her, or to honor David’s beliefs, or simply to be linked to David in a tangible way, even if that link was grounded in an unspoken point of spiritual departure. One wonders, too, if Nellie’s understanding of Edwin’s ambivalence—of which it seems certain she must have been aware—remained likewise an unspoken one. If so, such choice silence amongst the three of them seems to reflect more fully the depth of their understandings of one another.
On June 2, Edwin’s 46th birthday, he took only a short time to celebrate. After an early trip to the Insect Garden, he continued working on “Life’s Dividing Line,” taking a midday break to have a “big angel food cake and olives and such” with Nellie and his mother. That evening, despite the darkness of the time, Edwin took time to reflect on the forward trajectory of his accomplishments, probably in great part to muster his morale: On his birthday in 1942, he had completed 20 chapters in Near Horizons; in 1943, 22 chapters in Dune Boy were done; and, in 1945, amidst the greatest crisis of his life, 23 chapters of The Lost Woods were done. These incremental rises in productivity gave him “a little encouragement,” which he sorely needed.
On June 5, Edwin had lunch with Mr. Stroh, on which he offered no further comment. Following some research at a “25th St Library room,” he went to see Mrs. Alvear to see if she had received any report from the War Department regarding the events surrounding her son’s death. Edwin noted only that she had “heard no more.” The detachment of his notation seems to belie the meeting’s likely effect on Edwin. Here was a mother who had received the news that Edwin and Nellie had dreaded receiving since April 2, and, in reality, long before that. Edwin must have been deeply disturbed and depressed by this meeting, yet, immediately afterward, he headed for the New York Public Library at 42nd Street to complete “catfish research.” Edwin’s work to finish The Lost Woods had, like the Insect Garden, become for him a sanctuary, albeit a high-pressure one.
The following day, June 6, marked the one-year anniversary of the Allied Powers’ Invasion of Normandy and the subsequent march to Berlin, into the fierce current of which David had been swept and now was lost. Edwin felt encouraged on this day by a radio announcement: “Radio at night reports 15,000 former prisoners still unaccounted for—gives me a lift.” Antonio Alvear’s declared death, though a stunning blow, had not completely erased months of tenuous hope. The radio announcement’s lift, however, was tempered five days later by the return of another of David’s packages on June 11. It too was “marked ‘deceased’ but crossed out and ‘missing’ substituted.” Edwin and Nellie took a long walk that evening to the moor at the end of Park Avenue, “feeling depressed.” Still, on the following day, Edwin found some solace in the fruits of his labors:
…John Sherman’s latest catalogue… features five Teale books—Near Horizons; Grassroot Jungles; The Golden Throng; The Boy’s Book of Insects; and Dune Boy. Also on Blue Special order slip. In the midst of my depression, this came like sunshine—recalling the veneration of other days when I first came in contact with this institution of Entomology—the Sherman Catalogue.
A further ray of hope came to the Teales on June 15, when one of three Easter Cards they had sent David was returned, this one marked only “Missing J. Hawkins 1st Lt.” Edwin noted, “He is the same officer who had put ‘Deceased’ on package. Hope it is a good sign.” Edwin also reached out by telephone to Walter F. Gould, the grandfather of Harold F. Gould, Jr., another of the flag’s signers. Harold Gould had not been declared Missing in Action on March 16, and his family had received communications from him in the days that followed. Edwin likely presumed that he, like Billy Richardson, had not been part of David’s patrol that night. Still, he hoped Harold Gould might have information to offer. The young Gould had, in fact, been amongst the twelve-man team that entered the Moselle River in four inflatable rubber boats that fateful night. Five weeks later, he would write to Edwin, shedding light on events that, in mid-June of 1945, remained painfully shrouded by the maelstrom of war.
On Sunday, June 17, Edwin completed the 26th chapter of The Lost Woods. Only four chapters remained to be written: “The long haul is nearing an end—How much of pain and strain, grief and anxiety has marked the latter hours of its composition.” Despite this progress, June 18 turned out to be “a day of little accomplishment.” Edwin spent most of the day “getting photos for Reader’s Digest artist and writing ‘must’ letters.” In the mid-afternoon he took a “walk to [the] post office in low spirits.” Upon his return, he received a call from Edwin Stroh’s father; it was a death blow to his and Nellie’s hopes: “Call from Stroh said they got telegram their boy had been killed.” Antonio Alvear was dead. Edwin Stroh was dead. It seemed only a matter of time before Eugene Pings and David Teale, and perhaps others who had signed the Nazi flag, would join this roster of sacrifice. Edwin relayed Stroh’s death in only one quickly-constructed sentence, but the devastation of that news is unmistakable and heart-rending. On the diary page, the sentence is stained by four droplets that have bled the ink of this news into small, jagged-edged planets of different grays—only the second occurrence of visible tears in Edwin’s 1945 Guild diary. Another stray planet stains the facing page. In total, they form a five-bodied, grief-centric system with a stricken father at the center of their terrible orbits, orbits that were replicated across the country and across the world in 1945, orbits from which there could be no true and full recovery. “Have given up all hope for Davy,” Edwin wrote in the sentence that followed, “and how sad are our hearts. How helpless we are from birth to death!”
Richard Telford has taught literature and composition at The Woodstock Academy since 1997. In 2011, he helped found the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence at Trail Wood program, which he now directs. He was a long-time contributing writer for The Ecotone Exchange. He was recently awarded a Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant by the University of Connecticut to support his work on a book about naturalist, writer, and photographer Edwin Way Teale. The Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees likewise granted him a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 academic year to support this work.
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